The Emergencies of Ethics

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Yes. The title of this post is a play on that of Ayn Rand's essay, "The Ethics of Emergencies", which appears in her book, The Virtue of Selfishness. The word play is deliberate, because the article I am writing about remarkably takes exactly the opposite of Ayn Rand's philosophical approach as it addresses an interesting question.

In "Numbed by Numbers " (via Arts and Letters Daily), author Paul Slovic considers the fact that people are generally moved to pity (and aid) individuals who are unfortunate in the present, but less so groups, and less so over protracted periods of time. In attempting to explain why this might be so, he cites some interesting research, but because his approach is philosophically flawed, he draws exactly the opposite conclusion about what could be done to alleviate (or avert altogether) such calamities as the genocide in Darfur!

Very briefly, let us consider the essence of the conventional approach to the field of ethics. Most will claim that ethics is a set of arbitrary commands (e.g. meaningless social conventions or divine edicts) which may or may not happen to provide any practical guidance to an individual for furthering his own life. This is reflected in the fact that so many people face ethical dilemmas when what they regard as the moral conflicts with what they regard as the practical.

The reason for this common problem is that most ethical systems are formulated without regard to what man actually is or why he might need an ethical system to survive. Quite frequently, when man's nature is considered at all, it is man who is found wanting when his nature conflicts with the ethical system, rather than the validity of the ethical system coming into question. But then, when one accepts the arbitrary, one has placed it outside of rational consideration.

By contrast, Ayn Rand begins by asking what man is, and why he needs a code of morality. Using this approach, she sees right away that man, a rational animal possessed of free will, is a living being and as such must perform certain actions in order to survive. Because man does not have instincts, he must learn everything, including what these actions are.

And because reason allows man to keep track of countless individual concretes efficiently (as well as any important similarities) by means of concepts, it allows him to essentialize the countless similar existents he will face as he goes through life. In particular, man can evaluate various situations (and his actions) conceptually. The science of making such evaluations (and guiding them by considering the evidence for what he needs to live (and flourish) is ethics, or morality.

Bearing this very brief comparison in mind, it is interesting to consider Slovic's analysis of the limits of human compassion and what ought to be done about it.

Most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue "the one" whose plight comes to their attention. But these same people often become numbly indifferent to the plight of "the one" who is "one of many" in a much greater problem. It's happening right now in regards to Darfur, where over 200,000 innocent civilians have been killed in the past four years and at least another 2.5 million have been driven from their homes. Why aren't these horrific statistics sparking us to action? Why do good people ignore mass murder and genocide?

The answer may lie in human psychology. Specifically, it is our inability to comprehend numbers and relate them to mass human tragedy that stifles our ability to act.


The psychological mechanism that may play a role in many, if not all, episodes in which mass murder is neglected involves what’s known as the "dance of affect and reason" in decision-making. Affect is our ability to sense immediately whether something is good or bad. But the problem of numbing arises when these positive and negative feelings combine with reasoned analysis to guide our judgments, decisions, and actions. Psychologists have found that the statistics of mass murder or genocide -- no matter how large the numbers—do not convey the true meaning of such atrocities. The numbers fail to trigger the affective emotion or feeling required to motivate action. In other words, we know that genocide in Darfur is real, but we do not "feel" that reality. In fact, not only do we fail to grasp the gravity of the statistics, but the numbers themselves may actually hinder the psychological processes required to prompt action.

When writer Annie Dillard was struggling to comprehend the mass human tragedies that the world ignores, she asked, "At what number do other individuals blur for me?" In other words, when does "compassion fatigue" set in? Our research suggests that the "blurring" of individuals may begin as early as the number two.
The best point here indirectly mirrors one brought up in discussions of epistemology in Objectivist circles all the time: Man's mind can not deal with limitless amounts of perceptual data. This phenomenon, because it was first observed in experiments that showed that crows could not distinguish numbers of groups above something like three, is often called the "crow epistemology". To a degree, this "blurring" certainly can be accounted for by this limitation of the human mind.

However, the crow epistemology cannot account for all of this "blurring", nor can it account for "compassion fatigue" over time. This is borne out by the fact that it is through such shorthand as numbers (e.g., in the form of statistics) that man can keep track of many instances of a given particular. Slovic grasps this implicitly when he asks, "Why aren't these horrific statistics sparking us to action?"

Now this is an interesting question, and in order to understand what is wrong with Slovic's explanation, the "dance of affect and reason", it is necessary to consider Ayn Rand's insight into the relationship between reason and emotion, which I once summarized (and applied) as follows:
According to Ayn Rand, emotions are instantaneous, subconsciously-made evaluations of what one is experiencing or thinking about at any given moment. Emotions are also experienced, much like percepts. However, what one feels about something will ultimately be based on one's philosophical premises. The concept of rationality doesn't apply to emotions as such, although it certainly does to the thought processes that led someone to adopt the premises underlying the emotion. This is a profound and very important insight ... Let's explore [the implications of] this a bit....

First, this insight can help us interpret the reactions of others. Did you shout with glee and pass candy around like a savage on September 11, 2001? Or did you cry because you saw fellow human beings jumping out of windows? These differing emotions reveal opposite judgments of that event and of the value of human life. (In many cases, one's own: which philosophy led to nineteen men immolating themselves that day?) Were you angry? At America as the "world aggressor" or at the terrorists? Same emotion, different underlying philosophical premises. ...
While I cannot read Slovic's mind, I think he would agree that whether one actually does something in response to news of suffering (be it in the form of a moving film clip or a report tallying a staggering number of unfortunates) would have to be motivated at least in some way by the person's emotional response. Using behavior as a gauge, then, it is fair to say that Slovic himself was moved by reports of genocide in Darfur sufficiently to ask why more people are not similarly moved, write about what he found, and advocate using the findings he reported.

To be fair, columns of numbers and graphs are never going to evoke an immediate emotional response, but this is because like words, numbers mean things. Not only do these numbers (highly abstract data) need to be tied to concrete reality in some way, the existents they describe must still be evaluated according to a person's philosophical premises before he will feel an emotional response, if he feels one at all. And furthermore, these premises will determine what that response (and its intensity) will be. (On this score, if anything is deficient, it is not human nature, but how effective our educational system has been in teaching people how the abstract and the concrete are connected in the first place.)

To take myself as an example, I was once moved by a report of genocide to become very angry, but my response was probably different in some ways than Slovic's would have been, given that he regards Mother Teresa as a moral ideal and I do not.
[W]hen one regards individuals as without rights, or as subordinate to the collective at best, and holds uniformity to be an ideal, one becomes blind to the fact that the "smallest minority", as Ayn Rand once put it is "the individual". Viewed in this light, every socialist dictatorship is guilty of "genocide" countless times over!

Genocide is wrong only because murder is wrong. And oppression of a minority is wrong only because violating the rights of its constituent individuals is wrong. There is no meaningful difference between a government that drives a minority into poverty and oppression and one that does the same thing wholesale to its entire populace. In this respect, leftist condemnations of genocide are missing the big picture at best and constitute dishonest distractions from essential issues at worst.

Robert Mugabe deserves to be deposed, tried as a criminal against humanity, and executed because he is a tyrant. Genocide is only the tip of this iceberg.
Note my outrage. Note further that it is directed in part against leftists, many of whom claim to act in the name of alleviating human suffering. And note why: Precisely as Slovic himself points out, every instance of mass human suffering is endured by countless individuals. As such, every tyranny is an atrocity of appalling proportions.

I will not elaborate further here on why I do not think that the purpose of my life is to alleviate the suffering of others. I will also not detail why, although I promote the protection of individual rights for purely egoistic reasons, I think doing so would do far more to mitigate atrocities such as those in Darfur and Zimbabwe (if not avert many of them altogether) than any amount of charitable donations made while doing nothing to end such regimes.

What I will do is note that human beings are not incapable of being moved to act by statistical data. That such data is not entirely accessible on the perceptual level would certainly make it less easy to use it stir someone who does not think deeply to action. And furthermore, for any data to cause someone to make a charitable donation even after feeling an emotion like pity, that person must hold appropriate philosophical premises.

And even in this last case, the common "problem" of the moral vs. the practical doubtless contributes. Man simply cannot live by consistently practicing self-sacrifice. Even if he holds that he exists to help others, he must still act to further his own life at some point. He will, sooner or later, if he is to remain alive, have to ignore someone else's problems and attend to his own. And then there are also the interesting questions of whether the emotions Slovic wants us to feel could be sustained over long periods of time and whether, if they could, they would result in mental illness.

There are any number of reasons why statistics do not move people to act to alleviate suffering, but using "reasoned analysis to guide our judgments" is actually not one of them, given what reason is, what statistics are for, and the relationship of reason to emotion (and of both of these to action).

Having said that, it was interesting to see Slovic take altruism as a given, then observe so many of us not living by it to his satisfaction, only to conclude that we have a "fundamental deficiency in our humanity", rather than ask whether it is altruism itself -- as Ayn Rand spent a lifetime arguing -- which is deficient as a guide for human action and which, if overcome, could at least thwart countless thugs and tyrants, thereby putting an end to much of human misery.

There are indeed many humanitarian emergencies in the world, but many are caused or worsened by the notion that man does not exist for his own sake and that it is therefore acceptable to enslave him (or worse) in the name of helping the collective. These are "emergencies of ethics" to the extent that they are caused by altruism.

-- CAV


: Several minor edits.

5-16-07: Added a hypertext anchor.


Anonymous said...

Gus Van Horn, you are a GOD! This is the best piece of debunking I've read in a long time. I hope you never tire.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you, my son. That'll be five rams and an ox, very well done.

Anonymous said...

Haaha! Not only do you exist (for a change), but by god, what a generous deity you are! Only five rams and an ox! Thanks for not asking for a son.

Jokes aside though, you do have much patience and endurance. I don't know if it's college that's getting to me, but nowadays, when it comes to idiocies, I just tend to notice and ignore -- even pointing it out is a chore, let alone debunking it.

So yeah, you ... um ... rock.

Gus Van Horn said...

Or I'm nuts. Just wait until I ask you for a virgin sacrifice from the seedy part of town....

I find that I am leaning towards more shorter stuff lately, but sometimes, as here, I find it interesting to figure out exactly WHAT is wrong with a particular piece of rubbish, and when that happens I will still put the -v in "Van Horn". (A little Unix humor for you.)

Here, I think I could have gone further, but I do have other things to do....

Galileo Blogs said...

Very nicely written (and nicely "chewed") summary of how the Objectivist ethics is derived from man's nature.

Interesting post. I suspect there is truth in the idea that a mere statistical numeraire of death can dull one's emotional response to it and willingness to act. To think of a horrible example, just thinking in an abstract manner of the 3,000 killed on 9/11 moves me less than concretizing this number in my mind with images of people jumping from buildings, and mental images of passengers in the doomed planes. (Whew, it is tough thinking about that!)

But although there is truth that statistics are abstract and motivate less than concrete, graphic images, such as the image of a single dead person, the real reason that statistics of the Darfur dead do not motivate has to do with moral principles. Altruism is a terrible motivator. Exhortations to act to alleviate an undeserved guilt such as "guilt" over the deaths at Darfur do not motivate as much as selfish anger motivated out of rational fear that occurred on September 11, 2001, or December 7, 1941, etc.

The human mind is fully capable of using abstract concepts such as statistics to ascertain reality and to be motivated to act from conclusions formed from those abstract concepts. A conceptual being is not so concrete-bound that he needs to see bloody corpses to be motivated. In fact, it is his conceptual faculty that tells him whether to be motivated to act when he sees an image of another starving child in Africa versus images of the horrors from 9/11.

So, there is truth in Slovic's point on a narrow level, but he really doesn't get it on a more fundamental level. In contrast to Slovic, I give people credit for *not* acting on Darfur. It probably reflects a truthful recognition on their part that anything we do there will not fundamentally address the reason why so many millions perpetually starve every year on that continent, despite the multiple billion dollars of aid we throw there year with depressing regularity.

On a side note, the discussion reminds me of how often people think it is so important just to "feel" the pain of another person. So many leftist-leaning people seem to value the process of mentally wringing their hands over the plight of the starving homeless and genocide victims the world over while not doing a damn thing about it, or at least not a damn thing that truly matters.

Ironically, the only people who are doing something about it are Objectivists and others who advocate and practice capitalism. And they are not even motivated by the desire to help the downtrodden as their primary goal!


On yet another point from one of your linked posts, I share your anger over the tragedy in Zimbabwe. The anger I feel is not just because these people are suffering, but that it is so tragically unnecessary. Zimbabwe before Mugabe (albeit while practicing apartheid), was a modern, wealthy country. Its productive farms exported grain across Africa. Its cities were modern, Western jewels in the African desert.

The West stood by and did nothing while Robert Mugabe destroyed all that. The West is complicit in allowing him to continue to get away with his tribal, barbarian dictatorship. As an example of that, I recall that in response to Mugabe's wholesale destruction of entire city blocks of homes of his political opponents, the United Nations, after "protesting" these actions, offered to provide low cost housing paid for by the West to replace those homes!! The United Nations treated the heinous actions of the dictator in destroying the homes of Zimbabweans as if they were just a natural disaster needing to be alleviated. This incredible attitude of tolerance and subsidy to a dictatorship perpetuates it. While this goes on, leftists such as Ted Turner are pleased to pour hundreds of millions of dollars of their own money (not to mention our tax money) into the United Nations so he can preen about his moral goodness to the world.

He needs the dead and dying in Africa so he can preen. Sadly, his moral stamp and financial support of an organization such as the United Nations and his anti-capitalism help create the conditions for perpetual, un-ending death and destruction in Africa and elsewhere. Now that gets me angry!

Gus Van Horn said...

The points you make in the first part of this comment fill in a few gaps I left that I wish I'd addressed (or filled out more), especially altruism as a poor motivator.

As far as what the West did (or failed to do) WRT Mugabe, some of this is what I think of as "White guilt", or a package-dealing of often legitimate guilt about racism with a fear of morally evaluating a black man who is, by any objective standard, a villain.

For the West to rule Zimbabwe as a colony under apartheid is not morally equivalent to preventing a Mugabe from enslaving his own citizens.

Sadly, because of confusion about racism, this distinction is unclear to many.

Galileo Blogs said...

The concept of White Guilt accurately describes a widespread phenomenon. That is certainly why (unearned) guilty white people ignore truly barbaric horrors in Africa while denouncing the American occupation of Iraq. Or, they rationalize or downplay uncivilized behavior in welfare slums while holding whites to a different standard.

White Guilt does have a legitimate origin in revulsion toward the Jim Crow laws and the legacy of slavery. But that is history, fortunately. Today's White Guilt, because it holds blacks and whites to different standards, is racism, period. It judges blacks and whites by their race, not the content of the character.

Gus Van Horn said...

I'd never thought about White Guilt from quite that angle, but you're absolutely right about it being a form of racism.

That package deal skews a whole host of issues and often stunts constructive debate when some of the parties involved just happen, as they used to say, to be black.

khartoum said...

Great post! Its amazing how you have derived ethics from man's nature and pieced it up all so beautifully.

I love your attitude to find out WHAT exactly is wrong with the argument.

Keep em' coming!

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you very much, Khartoum.